Atheists are “vincibly ignorant”

Joe Carter at First Things, The Vincible Ignorance of Atheism:

Even as a fervent believer I can acknowledge that skepticism and atheism can be inspired by the reasons Hart lists. But I fail to understand how that makes them noble, precious, or necessary traditions. Indeed, I wish Christians would recognize just the opposite: We have to abandon the politically correct notion that atheism is intellectually respectable.

Historically speaking, this concession to the greatest lie in the universe is a rather recent development. While there have always been people who deny the existence of a deity, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Christian theism. What previous cultures instinctively understood, and that we in turn have forgotten, is that atheism is a form of (self-imposed) intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or—to borrow a term from my Catholic friends—a case of vincible ignorance.

Let me do a substitution on the part I have emphasized: While there have always been people who deny the existence of Allah, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Muslim theism. For much of the history of the West there were strong social sanctions against public expressions of atheism. And quite often the sanctions were not simply matters of ostracism, they were of capital consequence. The last person executed in the British Isles for atheism suffered such a punishment around ~1700 (see How the Scots Invented the Modern World). There were almost certainly many atheists at the commanding heights of intellect in the pre-modern era in the West, but they would certainly not be open about their views lest they suffer extreme punishment. Additionally, in an era where written works were copied in religious institutions the likelihood of atheistic arguments being transcribed seem rather low (there were already pre-Christian works, such as those of Lucretius, which were useful as examples to refute). A window into the atheists at the heights of intellect who we know nothing of may be someone such as Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, who flourished in a time of transition between the old and new regime in regards to freedom of conscience. He was a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, but his clerical career was a matter of self-interest, not genuine belief. His materialism and atheism was so well known that the king of France vetoed his advancement within the Church because he believed that de Brienne’s lack of belief in Christianity rendered his aspirations to becoming a prince of the Church unseemly.

But we don’t have just the West as an example. In both India and China many intellectuals have long been skeptical of theism. Granted, this does not mean that the majority of intellectuals were atheists, but the atheist position has not been without defenders. The Confucian sage Xun Zi was arguably a materialist, whose defense of the propriety of religious ritual was purely instrumental. Even those Chinese scholars who were more open to supernaturalism than Xun Zi often found Christian theism to be beneath their consideration, reflecting a more primitive mindset.

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